Lemon caravans and the law


Angry owners of dodgy caravans are experiencing difficulties getting their consumer rights met.

Have lemon? Won't travel


Australians love hitting the road to travel, and it's not unusual to see a parade of caravans and RVs (recreational vehicles) travelling all over our wide brown land.

Caravan use in Australia has been on the increase over the last 10 years and while our enthusiasm for caravanning is changing, so are caravans themselves. These days you can buy a blinged up luxury home on wheels for north of $100,000.

But as the industry grows, it appears so has the number of problems owners are experiencing with the vans they buy. A number of unhappy caravan owners who've experienced major faults and problems with new vans have contacted CHOICE, and to add insult to injury, many have struggled to get resolutions on these problems in terms of repairs, replacements or refunds.

A road to nowhere

When Colin O'Neil decided to buy a new caravan he never imagined it would lead to financial disaster, poor health and a three-year ongoing battle to seek compensation.

O'Neil says he purchased the $80k van in 2014 after seeing the model at a caravan and RV show. He'd recently retired and he and his wife wanted to upgrade to a new van for their holiday to WA. They were keen on a van they saw with an en suite and washing machine and were promised to have the van they liked manufactured and delivered in time.

Caravan being towed after a gas explosion
A caravan being towed after a gas explosion

O'Neil says the first red flag was when they went to pick up the van and were told there was no washing machine and that it would be fitted at a later date. The couple took the van anyway and headed off on their first journey.

Within days they noticed that the floor was wet and quickly discovered the van was letting in water as it was poorly sealed.

Before they could think about the leaks, O'Neil says the electrics "packed it in" while they were travelling in South Australia. He phoned what he had been told was a 24/7 support line for roadside assistance but says the number didn't exist.

After calling the manufacturer directly he was then told he'd have to take the van to Alice Springs for repairs. When neither repairer there was suited to caravan repairs he was then told to take the van to Geraldton in WA. It was there O'Neil says the repairer told him that his "new van" was more likely to be over a year old with fittings inside that were older again.

Back in Sydney O'Neil contacted Fair Trading NSW for advice and said that every attempt to speak to the manufacturers was thwarted. Eventually he took his case to an NCAT (NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal) hearing where the manufacturer agreed to repair the van in a few weeks and provide O'Neil with a loan van.

O'Neil says the repairs took months not weeks and the loan van never materialised. When he finally got his van back he says the electrics and the brakes started to play up again and leaking continued to plague the van. The door to the van was also faulty and O'Neil said he had to avoid turning left too hard when driving as the brakes would lock up.

We test a range of GPS devices and compare them with free apps Apple Maps and Google Maps in our latest car GPS reviews.

O'Neil then took the (still faulty) caravan to Darwin to live in while he took a job for a few months. Not long after he arrived he had a massive heart attack and was airlifted back to Sydney. His family then had to organise to bring the van back to Sydney.

Three years since O'Neil bought his 'new' van he says it is now sitting in his front garden, completely unusable and he is still out of pocket. He says despite all his efforts and the tribunal finding, he's still received no compensation or any offer of a refund or replacement. He says his only option is to take the matter back to NCAT but is unsure if he can afford the time and money. (He says his first NCAT hearing cost him over a thousand dollars and weeks of his time.)

O'Neil says he's just lost heart battling for justice. "All we wanted was a holiday. I wanted to retire and enjoy my time – instead I'm left in debt and stressed and with three years of wasted time fighting for my rights, yet the company that did this to me is still trading."

"This is why so many people like me with dodgy vans just give up – it takes so much time, they get the runaround and they end up selling the van and trying to get back some of their money and then that problem van ends up getting sold to someone else. The fact is my van never worked properly from the beginning – it still looks good on the exterior but the reality is that it's a deathtrap.

Fighting back

Tracy Leigh set up her Facebook group Lemon Caravans & RVs in Aus after she says she experienced serious problems within hours of buying a brand new $72k van in 2015 and is still chasing a resolution. Her page now has more than 16,300 members and continues to grow as more unhappy owners seek advice on what to do with their lemon vans.

Leigh says she's been overwhelmed by the stories she's heard about severely defective camper trailers, caravans and RVs. And according to her, price makes no difference when it comes to quality. "You can pay over $100k and still get a lemon," she says.

Caravan being towed after suspension failure
A two-year-old caravan being towed after suspension failure

And where do the problems stem from? She describes the industry as being a shambles.

"It is not regulated, it's self-certifying and self-accredited. There have also been allegations of organised crime involvement, standover tactics and death threats. The industry acts as if they are a law unto themselves, which they are because no government agencies are taking much notice and those that do, take months and sometimes years to investigate."

And despite the best efforts of many unhappy owners looking to remedy their situation via the Australian Consumer Law, Leigh says she has seen little success.

"To the best of my knowledge, not one RV company has been prosecuted for any breaches of any laws, in spite of substantial evidence being supplied to the ACCC, consumer affairs and other regulators such as for electricity, gas and vehicle standards."

A growing industry, but at what cost?

Former caravan repairer Barry Davidson agrees with Leigh that the multibillion-dollar industry needs a complete overhaul. Davidson, who describes himself as an industry veteran, has built and sold caravans and also ran one of Australia's biggest repair companies in Queensland for over 20 years.

He says the industry has gone from a couple of well established and well regarded manufacturers 20 years ago to hundreds of small companies jumping on the caravan manufacturing bandwagon today. He says as caravanning continues to grow in popularity, combined with a lack of regulation, "any idiot with a glue gun and a screw gun can set up shop and call themselves a caravan manufacturer".

And thanks to the deluge of new manufacturers entering the market, competition for sales is tough so there are plenty of corners cut in the manufacturing process in order to compete on price. In fact Davidson was so alarmed by some of the dodgy work he'd seen at his repair business he created the 'Rogues Gallery' on a popular online caravan forum which is a horror show of water damage, broken chassis, severely overweight vans, dangerous electrics and more, all on relatively new vans.

Dodgy vans on the road

Colin Young, a retired engineer and manager of the Caravan Council ofAustralia, says he's haunted by the thought of how many unsafe vans are on the road. He says he's aware of a number of serious incidents in the recent past and says that for every major accident involving a caravan there are probably another 100 more that involve jackknifing and near misses due to poorly constructed and overweight vans being driven by inexperienced drivers.

"So many of these vehicles are unsafe and are not fit to be on the roads, yet they are. If these were cars there would be uproar."

So just how is it that so many lemons make it onto the road?

A self-regulated industry

While most of us couldn't just set up shop making and selling cars – when it comes to caravans it's possible. Despite Australian design rules set by Vehicle Standards it appears there's an issue around just how much independent oversight there is to ensure that manufacturers are complying.

Under the Motor vehicle standards act, light trailers (this generally includes caravans and RVs) under 4.5 tonnes are currently "self certifying". When we contacted the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, which oversees vehicle standards, they expanded on this. A spokesperson said that road trailers (which includes caravans) that don't exceed 4.5 tonnes may be supplied via two different pathways:

  • Trailers not exceeding 4.5 tonnes are supplied under the legislative arrangement called Vehicle Standards Bulletin No. 1 (VSB1). If a manufacturer complies with the prescribed requirements of VSB1, the manufacturer is permitted to fit a trailer plate under s.14A(1) of The Motor Vehicle Standards Act 1989 (the Act) and supply the trailer to the Australian market.
  • Where a trailer's design is unable to meet the requirements of VSB1, the manufacturer must seek approval under the Act to supply to market. In general terms, this means the manufacturer will need to demonstrate full compliance (via an application through the Road Vehicle Certification System) with all applicable Australian Design Rules (ADRs) and if approved will receive written approval to supply that vehicle type to the market.

So why is the process so different to that of motor vehicles?

A spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure and Development says that the certification process for motor vehicles is well suited to mass-produced vehicles. However, light trailers (which includes vans) are generally custom-made so the approval process is not as suitable.

Caravan wet rot
Wet rot in the body of the caravan due to poor sealing and joining – a common and expensive repair issue for owners

"For example, a consumer may purchase a custom-made caravan and under the type approval process this may not be cost effective due to the high cost of additional testing required to modify the existing type approval," he says.

However, the owners and industry experts we spoke to say the current system just isn't enough.

"It's a case of 'tick a box'," says Leigh. "There are design rules but I doubt they are being followed, and there's no enforcement, no spot checks – currently these are not being enforced in any way, and at the same time there are too many small, inexperienced companies that don't have the knowledge to certify."

Manufacturers behaving badly

Caravan repairer Barry Davidson says that when it comes to honouring repairs under warranty there are few caravan manufacturers he would trust these days.

"They can say they provide a warranty but when it comes time to make a claim, it's a different game."

He says that while his company does a huge amount of repairs technically under warranty, they now bill the owner for the cost of the work and it's then up to the owner to try and recoup the money themselves, usually with little success.

While we were researching this story we were contacted by Jason (not his real name), a plumber who has worked in the caravan industry for more than 10 years. He said while he was happy to speak about the issues in the industry he didn't feel safe enough to identify himself in the article.

He says that poor manufacturing processes are rife. "While there are design rules and compliance regulation it's not enforced. Manufacturers know that so they will constantly push the boundaries. There are unlicensed people doing the work and it's signed off without being checked properly."

Jason says the current auditing process is a joke. "You get prior warning before they visit and when I worked for certain manufacturers I'd be told to not show the auditors certain vans because it was clear that they would not pass the audit. It was completely deliberate."

While he says certain trade work is regulated more rigorously in some states (such as electrics or plumbing) it's not in others.

"With plumbing where there weren't any checks, I know of one van owner who had waste water from the toilet being pumped into the fresh water tank. It wasn't picked up as a fault and was only discovered when the guy and his family kept getting sick."

Jason says the biggest issue with the current state of manufacture is that the regulation isn't done as a whole or by any independent body.

"Caravans are not regulated as caravans – they are classified with trailers via the vehicle safety standards which doesn't help as most of the design rules relate to the externals, brakes [and] lights. It doesn't cover what's inside including electrics, plumbing [and] cabinetry."

Consumer rights – good in theory, hard in practice

Under the current consumer laws the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) gives examples of what might be considered a major failure. A major failure to comply with the consumer guarantees is when:

A reasonable consumer wouldn't have bought the item if they'd known about the full extent of the problem. For example, no reasonable consumer would buy a new caravan with so many recurring faults that the caravan has spent more time off the road than on it because several repairers have been unable to solve the problem.

If your situation appears to suit the ACCC's definition of a major failure, then according to the Australian Consumer Law you should be entitled to a replacement or a refund.

We contacted the ACCC for comment on this issue. A spokesperson told CHOICE that they do not comment on complaints nor do they break complaints down by product.

Caravan bad wiring
Electrical wiring perforated by staples and screws during manufacture

NSW Fair Trading says that since January 1 2016 it has received 393 complaints and 1112 enquiries about new and used caravans. A spokesperson said that complaints about the purchase of caravans mostly related to defective, unsatisfactory goods, warranties and refunds, while complaints about the repair of a caravan relate to repairs maintenance, defective work, and unsatisfactory/non-performance.

In Queensland the Office of Fair Trading has received 92 complaints about caravans in the last financial year. And in 2016 Victoria Consumer Affairs received 107 enquiries relating to campervans and 306 enquiries relating to trailers and unpowered caravans.

The spokesperson from NSW Fair Trading says, "Under the motor dealers and repairers legislation, a caravan has no dealer guarantee attached to it when purchased. This means the dealer is not required by this legislation to repair, or make good any defect which may exist or occur with the caravan. Consumers buying a caravan from a licensed dealer, however, are covered under the Australian law."

However, as lemon caravan owner Colin O'Neil says, "The consumer laws in this country are good but are no good if they aren't enforced."

O'Neil has been in protracted discussions with NSW Fair Trading, taking his matter to the NSW Civil and Administrative tribunal. Yet after three years he says he still has an unroadworthy van and is out of pocket to the tune of $80,000 plus expenses.

Tracy Leigh says that despite the best efforts of many lemon caravan owners, few are satisfied with their experiences with the current consumer laws.

"Consumers are being ripped off on a daily basis and regulators such as the ACCC and consumer affairs will do nothing to enforce the Australian Consumer Law. This leaves consumers having to go to court, at a severe financial loss."

Erin Turner, CHOICE head of campaigns and policy, says there's plenty of work to be done when it comes to making our consumer laws work better for caravan owners with a problem. "When something goes wrong with a product, consumers should have confidence that they'll get a fair fix. This clearly isn't happening for people stuck with a lemon caravan. Governments across Australia need to work together to amend the consumer law so that it's clear that anyone who has to deal with multiple minor product failures has the option to get a refund or replacement."

Where to next?

While the various people we spoke to about this issue have different ideas about how the industry can be improved, all agree it is a serious issue. Some have called for a Royal Commission into the industry, or a class action. Others such as Tracy Leigh believe there should be specific lemon laws to better facilitate the refund and repair process, while others say that having an independent body to certify and oversee the industry at the point of manufacturer would nip many of the problems in the bud before the vans hit the sales floor or the road.

In February 2016 Vehicle Safety Standards published a discussion paper on reforming the certification process where manufacturers will have to provide a sample vehicle for approval before sale.

But all that is cold comfort for many unhappy owners who are still out of pocket and out of options. As Leigh says, "Having a lemon is an emotional, financial and physical burden that no consumer should go through if the laws worked properly."

Before you buy an RV or caravan

  • Don't buy at the caravan shows – despite how tempting it can be. The sales people can work on commission and often use high-pressure sales tactics.
  • Be wary of putting down large deposits – many companies go broke or 'phoenix' into another business and you could end up out of pocket.
  • Beware of claims that a manufacturer is accredited. The industry accredits itself so there's no assurance the quality is any better.
  • Know the difference between a full off-road and a semi off-road van. Many claim to be but are not and there is no industry standard, so this can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.
  • Check the sales contract thoroughly – ask to take it away so you can do so. Be prepared to negotiate and ask for things to be deleted if you don't think they're fair. Things to look out for are essential clauses such as the maximum permissible ATM (aggregate trailer mass), payload and ball weights.
  • Take an independent expert with you to assess the van – a builder, engineer, plumber or even a welder should be able to spot any obvious problems.
  • Request a cooling off period as many vans experience problems straight away.
  • If you have never owned an RV before, do a towing course. Learning how to tow and load your RV properly is as important as getting the right RV and could save your life

Looking for the best travel insurance?

See our travel insurance comparison.

Travel Insurance reviews


Leave a comment

Display comments